Set aside the footballing concerns for a moment and you have to feel terrible for Nicolo Zanolo. Still just 21-years-old with the sporting world seemingly at his feet, young Zaniolo seemed destined to be Roma's next great superstar. And much like Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi before him, Zaniolo seemed enamored with life in the Eternal City, seldom speaking about the spate of rumors leading him everywhere from London to Turin, which only served to strengthen the bond between Zaniolo and Roma all the more.
Undaunted by the prospect of playing with grown-ass men, Zaniolo made his professional debut at only 19-years-old. In the Champions League. Against the ten-time winning Real Madrid, no less. And within a year, Zaniolo not only became a Roma regular but with two goals against Porto in February of 2019, Zaniolo became the youngest Italian to score two goals in a single Champions League match.
Zaniolo wasn’t yet a household name, but he was well on his way, to the point that many were clamoring for Roma to give him Totti's vaunted number ten shirt. Zaniolo continued his ascendancy this past season before a torn ACL halted his progress this past January—an injury he has now suffered twice. Once to each knee. In the span of eight months. At only 21-years-old. Talk about a tough break.
Given how hard he worked to return this past spring, few among us can doubt that Zaniolo will do everything possible to take the pitch during 2020-2021, but Roma are facing the prospect of a Zaniolo-less existence for at least six months, if not more.
Which begs the question: what will Roma do to replace Zaniolo this season?
The Internal Options
Fortunately or unfortunately, Roma had this challenge thrust upon them this past winter, when Zaniolo tore the ACL in his right knee against Juventus on January 12th. The immediate results weren't great, as Roma won only two of their next seven matches, but Zaniolo's absence gave this next kid a chance to shine.
Arriving only 10 days prior to that fateful night against Juventus, Zaniolo's misery was Pérez's gain. While Paulo Fonseca was slow to integrate Pérez, the 22-year-old winger soon became a mainstay for Fonseca, making 17 appearances (7 starts) for Roma between February and August, playing outside as a winger and even slotting in the middle as an attacking midfielder and hybrid second-striker.
Pérez is a different sort of player than Zaniolo, but his agility, close control, ability to cut-in and his playmaking skills were critical to Roma's success in the restart. In fact, his 0.80 goal creating actions per 90 minutes was second to only Lorenzo Pellegrini last season.
He may not have the highlight worthy, game-breaking ability that makes Zaniolo so special, but Pérez is your odds-on favorite to be Roma's top option on the right-wing this season.
Of course, Pérez's rise up the pecking order had to coincide with someone's fall...
Still just 23-years-old, Ünder has experienced the gamut of Roma emotions in his three years with the club. From a relatively unknown summer signing in 2017, Ünder exploded on the scene, scoring 14 goals and chipping in 13 assists during his first two seasons with the club (all comps). While his hype wasn't quite equal to Zaniolo's, it sure seemed like we had a star on our hands.
But then 2019-2020 hit and suddenly Ünder had a standing appointment with the reserves bench, seeing his minutes drop from 1,375 down to a measly 873. Some of this was down to injury, but, at times, Ünder didn't quite seem to gel with Fonseca Football®, leaving him on the outside looking in.
However, one needn't look any further than his first two seasons in Rome to see what Ünder is capable of—there's a reason Napoli are so keen to acquire him, after all.
Ünder may not be as versatile as Pérez—and some still have issue with his defensive work-rate—but if we're talking about replacing Zaniolo's explosion, his ability to turn a match in a second, then Ünder is our best bet.
While Micki is probably best utilized in a more central role, Fonseca did deploy the Armenian attacker as a right-winger a few times last season. He's not the best crosser of the ball, but considering his innate attacking talent, you're never worse off for having him on the pitch.
Roma's newest signing may have seemed redundant a few weeks ago, but given Zaniolo's injury, not mention Pedro's versatility, the 33-year-old midfielder/forward may be counted on far more than anyone imagined just a couple of days ago.
While Pedro saw his role decline with Chelsea over the past few seasons, he's only two-years removed from a prolific 2018-2019 season with the Blues, one in which he made 45 appearances in all competitions, scoring 13 goals while providing five assists. And for most of those appearances, Pedro was slotted in as a right-winger, so if he's retained that muscle memory, he could make a push for serious playing time.
Lorenzo Pellegrini/Justin Kluivert
Neither of these players will likely be Fonseca's top choice for minutes on the right hand side of the pitch, but we can't rule out the possibility, as both have played there sparingly over the past 18 months or so.
There's still about a week and a half officially left in the summer, plus this season's transfer window doesn't close till October, so of course we have to discuss the transfer market. Given that Roma have a few viable options in-house, it's not likely they purchase a new winger, but let's take a look a few candidates that might tempt CEO/DS Guido Fienga.
Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
A quick search reveals that Bernardeschi, once seen as the best young player Italy had to offer, has fallen on hard times, seeing both his production and time on the pitch slip since signing with Juventus in 2017. For much of the summer, Bernardeschi has been transfer rumor fodder, making fictional moves to clubs as varied as Fiorentina, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, and yes, even Roma.
Bernardeschi profiles as a bigger and more athletic version of Pedro and Carles Pérez. During his heyday with the Viola, Bernardeschi was a menace, terrorizing opponents as a forward, midfielder and winger, playing on either flank. There may not be a deal to be made, but assuming that Juve would be desperate to offload the 26-year-old, Bernardeschi would be an intriguing upside play for Roma.
Roberto Pereyra (Watford)
With Watford dropped to the Championship for the 2020-2021 season, the 29-year-old Argentine attacker may be looking for a way out. In 32 appearances last year (all comps), Pereyra played all over Watford's attack, scoring five goals and providing one assist. Not overwhelming figures, but his experience—including stints with Udinese and Juventus—coupled with his versatility would give Fonseca practically unlimited options in attack.
Aleksandr Kokorin (Spartak Moscow)
The 29-year-old Russian forward, who only just joined Spartak, profiles more as a traditional forward but has spent time as a right-winger throughout his 12-year professional career. Signing Kokorin, who reportedly can already leave Spartak for a club in one of Europe's top five leagues, could be double dip for Roma, as he'd not only provide depth at right-wing but could serve as Edin Dzeko's backup. Admittedly not the flashiest option, Kokorin could do well as a last-minute transfer.
Losing Zaniolo is a crushing blow any way you slice it, but Roma have no shortage of options in his absence, but who would you prefer?